Arab Summit in Lebanon Struggles to Address Regional Issues

According to the UNHCR, over one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. Around five million live in the Middle East and North Africa. (Flickr)

According to the UNHCR, over one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. Around five million live in the Middle East and North Africa. (Flickr)

The Arab Economic and Social Development Summit (AESDS) took place in Beirut, Lebanon on January 20. Issues including poor attendance, divisions concerning Syria, and tensions with Qatar, took center stage. Many Arab leaders who were slated to attend, including the presidents of Egypt and Palestine, pulled out at the last minute, highlighting the growing tensions in the region. Nevertheless, the 20 delegations in attendance did agree to a 29-item agenda, called  the Beirut Declaration. The declaration echoed themes from previous summits, including the creation of an Arab free trade zone and support from the international community for countries hosting refugees and displaced people. More contentious issues, such as the readmission of Syria into the Arab League, were left for the larger Arab League Summit, scheduled for this March in Tunisia.

The AESDS, which was initiated in 2009 to address  social and economic development issues among Arab League member states, has faltered in recent years. Regional turmoil has contributed to the summit’s decline in significance. Past summits have helped unite the Arab world and foster solidarity among regional neighbors, most significantly the 2009 Summit, which came right after the Gaza War between Israel and the Palestinians. That summit, held in Kuwait, reconciled relations between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Syria, and united the Arab world in solidarity to help rebuild Gaza.

The biggest point of contention this year was whether to reinstate Syria, led by Bashar Al-Assad, as a member, given that Assad’s regime has regained control over most of Syria. Before the summit, Lebanese state media quoted the group’s secretary general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit,  , as saying that there is “no Arab agreement over the return of Syria as a member.”

However, countries have begun to signal their renewed support for the Syrian regime.Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani visited the AESDS. While the Emir quickly departed, it was a significant display of support for Lebanon, whose government has been firmly behind reinstating Syrian membership. Qatar has been one of the main backers of Syrian rebels since 2011, along with Saudi Arabia. The Emir’s brief attendance, as well as Qatar’s pledge to bolster the Lebanese economy with $500 million in US government bonds, highlights how Qatar is betting stability returns in Lebanon and Syria with the current regimes. In addition, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have already reopened their embassies in Damascus, signalling support for Assad.

Increasing political and economic instability in Lebanon also casted a cloud over the summit.Thousands of Palestinian and Syrian refugees reside in Lebanon, hampering government services and local utilities. In addition, protests have enveloped the country since the general elections in May due to the government’s inability to form an adequate cabinet to run the country. While the Qatari investment provides much needed economic stimulus, most observers agree that the summit was a missed opportunity for Lebanon to improve its political standing in the region.

One of the most unheralded but positive outcomes of the summit was the creation of a $200 million dollar technology investment fund by Kuwait. The fund will enable public and private investments in the fields of “technology and digital economy” across the League. Nonetheless, all eyes will be on the Arab League Summit in March, to see if the issues that carried over can finally be resolved there.